James Burke (1978)

The original (I think) work of trying to weave the threads of technological change through history – and possibly still the best. In terms of the broad sweep of history and the wedding of social and scientific factors, it’s hard to beat.

I don;t know how many of Burke’s connections are genuinely novel to him: did anyone before postulate that the Black Death led to the emergence of automation by making machines cheaper than manpower for the first time? Or did he get it from an earlier source? Whichever: for a lot of people (myself included) this book (which I first read over twenty years ago) was our first exposure to these ideas, and indeed to the idea that science and technology are in a two-way conversation with society.

4/5. Finished Wednesday 18 December, 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)


Serhii Plokhy (2018)

A surprising history of the Chernobyl accident. Surprising at a number of levels, not least the (small) number of direct deaths, which I always had the impression was higher. Plokhy links the events into the wider run of Soviet (and, later, Russian and Ukrainian) history, seeing the accident as a catalyst for the political changes that followed. While I’d’ve enjoyed more technical detail, the breadth and depth are welcome.

4/5. Finished Tuesday 17 December, 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Democracy: A Very Short Introduction

Bernard Crick (2002)

Should be required reading for everyone. An exploration of the complexity of what it means for something to be “democratic” – and contrasting this with what it means to be populist, majoritarian, and all the other pretenders for the crown.

4/5. Finished Tuesday 17 December, 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Song of Achilles

Madeline Miller (2011)

Another example of a well-known tale told from an unusual perspective, this time Patroclus’ view of his relationship with Achilles. It’s an excellent accomplishment, very believable, and compare favourably with Circe, Miller’s other work in the same theme.

It’s frustrating for the reader that Patroclus just doesn’t get it: even when he’s referred to as “the best of the Acheans”, he still feels he’ll outlive Achilles. And there are some anachronisms that frustrate slightly too: the Greeks didn’t have the same notion of homosexuality as we do, so many of the concerns and tensions that the book explores (and which are familiar to the modern reader) would have been less serious (and perhaps incomprehensible) at the time. But those are minor quibbles in what is by any measure a great achievement of re-centring a story.

5/5. Finished Tuesday 17 December, 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War

Ben Macintyre (2018)

Without doubt a true story that’s stranger than fiction – to the point that many people involved in the intelligence world refused to believe it was possible, and to believe that the whole thing was a complicated disinformation exercise. It’s the tale of Oleg Gordievsky and how he became a spy for MI6 – and how he was caught, released, and then ultimately escaped in an almost comical operation that no-one outside those immediately planning it thought had the slightest chance of success. But succeed it did, taking a man through the Iron Curtain in the boot of a car, and with him details of Soviet defence planning and intelligence operations covering decades.

4/5. Finished Tuesday 17 December, 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)